Bad Medicine

June 1, 2008

For a person once described as a “gray man” of “rigorous blandness,” Robert M. Gates seems surprisingly eager to take a rather large gamble. The Secretary of Defense is transfixed by the War on Terror. He wants to win it. He would risk future US power to do so.

That, at least, is one way to interpret a well-publicized Gates address to a defense audience in Colorado Springs. In that May 13 speech, he attacked the armed services, slamming what he called ” ‘next-war-itis’—the propensity … to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.” US energies, argued Gates, should be focused on “current needs and current conflicts”—the War on Terror. “That is the war we are in,” he said, and “the war we must win.” Buying modern arms to fight potential future foes like, say, China can just wait.

Besides, Gates went on, “It is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms—ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank—for some time to come.” Wars of the past 25 years, he opined, have seen “smaller, irregular forces” tying up big regular militaries, not force-on-force clashes. This won’t change, he assured his listeners, so “the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.”

Gates acknowledged a need to “hedge against” potential threats from “rising and resurgent powers” (read, China and Russia). That was mostly boilerplate, though. His real message was that, given limited funds, “it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios”—irregular, ground-centric wars.

As expounded in his Colorado Springs speech, the Gates way of force-building would weaken US full-spectrum power. The SECDEF warns that “any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to … irregular campaigns.” He has already noted that USAF’s new F-22 fighter has not flown “a single mission” in the current wars. Presumably, his injunction would also apply to other high-end forces.

Are Pentagon leaders really serious about this? Is Gates himself serious about it? He has embraced a stylized image of a future world landscape dominated by shadowy, lightly armed enemies sallying forth from remote redoubts and engaging in nonstop urban warfare. In case Mr. Gates has forgotten, it was not that long ago that the US had to use main conventional forces—principally air forces—to win the 1991 Gulf War. More recently, high-end forces were needed to fight in Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. None of these operations would have been possible without advanced, front-line weapons.

Gates wants to cure the services of “next-war-itis,” but he would only weaken the patients.

Neither Gates nor anyone else can safely predict the likelihood of major conventional war. Surely the Pentagon leader is aware of the huge buildup of fighters, warships, and other modern arms in China and Russia, as well as regional threats posed by the likes of North Korea and Iran. If it is true that the eruption of a major clash of conventional arms is not likely, it is because US air, sea, and land forces are strong enough to deter any aggressive moves. That is hardly a reason for turning away to deal with lesser problems.

Moreover, the US isn’t neglecting irregular warfare. The Bush Administration, in fact, made the demands of low-intensity combat the basis for adding 92,000 active troops to Army and Marine Corps end strength. DOD will spend upward of $20 billion for thousands of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks, used almost exclusively for counterinsurgency operations.

In fact, quite a few current and former military leaders worry that the Pentagon puts too much ephasis on irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. Last Fall, USAF Gen. Lance L. Smith, the outgoing chief of US Joint Forces Command, warned, “[W]e get so focused on counterinsurgency and irregular warfare that we are not prepared for a different kind of war, whether that is major conventional war or … a hybrid of large conventional war and irregular war.”

Gates is also misreading the value of airpower. He opines that, in years ahead, the Air Force (along with the Navy) will provide “America’s main strategic deterrent,” implying it offers little for irregular war. Yet today—right now—USAF is making a huge contribution to the war effort. Airborne ISR systems monitored 70,542 potential roadside bomb targets last year, according to Air Combat Command. Most insurgent deaths stem from fighter, bomber, and gunship attack from the air. Airlift has been vital.

This is not—or, at least, it doesn’t need to be—a zero-sum game. No one is forcing Washington to choose which danger it will address and which it will neglect. Few doubt the need to prepare to fight terrorists, insurgents, and the like. However, says USAF Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “the problem arises when people insist that war with peer and near-peer competitors is unlikely, and therefore, the overwhelming focus of the US military should be to prepare to conduct operations at the low end of the spectrum.”

Gates should know that the problem is not some villainous, grasping military, suffering from some bureaucratic disease. The problem is not even improper allocation of resources; the forces engaged in the Mideast wars are getting plentiful resources. The problem is that the budget is too small to cover all legitimate US defense requirements for both today and tomorrow.

Gates was on the right track in challenging some systems, particularly those geared to heavy land warfare. Still, we can’t solve our security problems by short-sheeting the future to pay for the present. The solution is to ask Congress for funds to do the job. No one knows how the lawmakers would respond; they’ve never really been asked.

Only the naive believe that we’ve seen the end of major, force-on-force warfare. Luckily, Gates does not have much time left to impose his preferences, given that President Bush is set to leave office in late January. The Secretary will leave his imprint on the next budget, and that will be the extent of it. That is the sole bright spot in this whole episode.